Merchants’ attitudes to work in the Barcelona of the later Middle Ages

Merchants’ attitudes to work in the Barcelona of the later Middle Ages: organisation of working space, distribution of time and scope of investments

By Jaume Aurell

Journal of Medieval History, Vol. 27 (2001)

Barcelona depicted in 1563 by Anton van den Wyngaerde

Abstract: The debate concerning the attitude to work of medieval and renaissance merchants has been one of the most intense in twentieth-century historiography. Arising from the publication of the classic works of the sociologist Max Weber, the debate entered the field of historiography proper after the appearance of articles by Werner Sombart and Henri Pirenne.


In the 1950s and 1960s, the works of Yves Renouard and Armando Sapori centred discussion on the development of a specifically mercantile culture in the Italy of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In this historiographic context, the article below is an attempt to approach, through original sources, the figure of the merchant in late medieval Barcelona. These sources are inventories, wills, and marriage contracts, through which is offered a three-dimensional analysis of the professional culture of such a merchant; the concept of professional space; the organisation of time; and the bearings of his commercial and patrimonial investments.

The result of this analysis is an attempt to reinterpret the decadence of Barcelona at the end of the fifteenth century through the notion of work entertained by those involved in commerce, attempting by this means to merge the consideration of economic and cultural matters. It is also a proposal for a model of analysis of professional categories, which on so many occasions have been left to one side because of the preponderance of more traditional questions such as those concerning society, economics or politics.

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